“Mr. Bitters is the king of acronyms, which in retrospect also helped my future career.”

4840081158_68ea6ceb54_zSoon I’ll be heading to my 30-year high school reunion. Seems crazy that we’re all pushing 50 now and have a lifetime behind us. What happened to those fresh faced teenage idealists? All those who were going to save the world by holding hands or stop apartheid by wishful thinking? Our paths went in every direction. Some of us moved away. Some became insurance agents, a teacher or two, nonprofit executives and bus drivers, military service and public safety. I’m sure none of us took the exact path we thought we would.

I find myself doing more reflecting as I enter this next chapter of life. Having left behind my days of lights, sirens, operation centers, and deployments, the memories drift further back each passing day. As I look ahead to more strategy development and better beds while on the road I can’t help but take stock of how I got here. What did I learn in high school that stays with me now? It’s not trig, that I can promise you.

Of all the people who were a part of my life in high school, one truly stands out. I only had two classes with him, but the lessons stuck. Both in science and more importantly, life.

Conrad Bitters had a reputation as a no-nonsense kind of teacher. Every semester you’d hear groans from kids who got him for Biology. The fear. This guy didn’t pull punches and he made you work.

Let’s face it, as a teenager work really is about the only 4 letter word we took offense at.

I was no different. My friend Pat and I sat in his lab the first day with a certain dread.

Mr. Bitters is the kind of guy with a very dry and sometimes subtle sense of humor. When things went sideways, he kept his cool (mostly). Even when Pat and I set paper towels on fire (accidentally… we didn’t think about wetting them before using them as pot holders) that turned into a chain of spills and fires as other tables turned to watch us throw flaming debris in the sink.

He didn’t yell.

He did, however, comment on our collective intelligence as I recall. In that calm, collected, subtle way he told us that yes, we were stupid.

Humans are stupid. It’s nothing to get upset about. It just is. Learning that lesson carried me through 27 years of public safety.

Mr. Bitters is the king of acronyms, which in retrospect also helped my future career. One of his favorites was RTQFMM, usually delivered to somebody who wasn’t paying attention during a lecture. It would go something like this: “Mr. Smith, do you know the answer? No? Well it’s an RTQFMM.” Real Tough Question For Mental Midgets (STOP. It was the 80’s. We didn’t get hung up on correctness. Deal with it.).

The class laughed, Mr. Smith stopped staring at the girls and we all grew just a little bit.

He did indeed challenge us. Academically, socially and physically. Every other year he taught a summer session that focused on ecology. This wasn’t environmental platitudes. Nope. We spent one day in class prepping, 3 days in the field experiencing, and one day back in class recapping. Day one was more about a safety briefing and the last day was, I’m pretty sure, his way of making certain we all made it back.

The bulk of the learning took place sweating to the top of Table Mountain to look at geology or suspended off a cliff to look at fossils. Or having a snowball fight in Tioga Pass (in July) and studying astronomy lying on our backs in a meadow at 8000 feet. Or waist deep in mud looking at huge snails and getting pinched by tiny crabs in the tidal flats of Morro Bay.

In that moment a couple of us discovered the fine line between bravery and stupidity as the muck hit mid chest and we decided to turn back.

Mr. Bitters was the guy who pushed us – convincing us we could hike 10 miles along the edge of the Yosemite Valley. That we could tie in and rappel down a cliff (word to the wise, feet go in front of you, contrary to what your brain tells you). rope training

He’d be first in the water and last up the mountain pushing us to the top. You could complain, but you couldn’t quit. He let us – hell, encouraged us – to get dirty and ask questions, to seek answers and not be afraid. He did that in the classroom and out.

As for me…well I figured out I really had a knack for understanding life sciences and ended up in AP Biology. After high school while aimlessly trying to figure out what came next my girlfriend (now wife) pushed me into this new thing called EMS. It was a natural fit and the rest, as they say, is history.

So here’s to you Mr. Bitters. The cornerstone of my desire to dig in, be unafraid and sometimes jump off a cliff. Thank you, the lessons serve me well even now, 30 years later.

Thinking Ahead

“The trick is being able to identify the potential downsides and plan for them.”

Imagine the future. The technology advancements. What new and improved devices will make our lives easier? How much more connected will we be? How smart will smart cities be? Implanted phones? Quantum computers? Elevated commuter roads, micro grid electricity generation, urban farming, water reclamation…the possibilities are endless. To a large degree all of the above are either reality or in development. This stuff isn’t as Jetson-esque as you might think. This is in our lifetimes. 6994928859_0c0ccb1242_m

Now what about the world map? What’s that look like? Has the world gotten safer or more fragmented? Are we closer to the peaceful holistic utopian vision of idealists or are we closer to warring factions in an increasingly fragmented and nationalistic world? Is the world economy more or less interdependent? Are we once again agrarian, self-sustaining communities or densely urbanized communities completely dependent on outside resources and logistical flows to sustain life?

It’s fun to imagine the utopian future where you can think “pizza” and a drone sets a hot slice in your hand while you bank transfers money to the pizza place as you sit watching reruns of 90’s sitcoms projected in 3D on the park lawn in front of you.

Great, now I’m thinking “pizza” right now and a little disappointed that the drone’s not inbound.

Setting cheesy cravings aside, back to my point. The peaceful pizza drone world is the world of the novelist and the screen writer. Not everything is perfect even in their utopian world. Even they know perfect is impossible. I seem to remember a bit in the Matrix about we humans needing conflict and stress or we don’t perform as efficient little batteries to power the Matrix. Probably some truth to that.

So, of course, there’s a villain. There has to be an antagonist in the story, who succumbs to justice delivered by the hovercraft-riding law enforcement hero. Who used AI to predict the criminals next move and prevented him from hurting anyone. Because in Utopia the good people get to win.

How about the other scenario? The one where the geopolitical map still divides states that might not get along. The one where villains are common and flourishing; organized crime, illicit substances, human trafficking, ideological extremists and maybe even a corrupt politician or two.

In fact, let’s just say that in this version of the story that everybody’s favorite villains of today have gotten stronger and spread their wings over the previous 20 years while the “good” guys got soft and chased Pokemon all about. Let’s say the map in the 2030’s look like the map of the 1970’s. On steroids. With one massive country dominating most of Europe, the Middle East and a war is brewing with their longtime “friends” in the Middle Kingdom.

favela hillside in rio de janeiroPeople will live in mega-cities mostly. Technology will be everywhere. The cities will support large favelas that make Rio’s look like summer camps. On the other end of the spectrum will be posh gated communities for the rich, complete with armed security. Those in the middle will span the spectrum from impoverished to wealthy, but there will be commonalities across the spectrum. Technology will be equally used by everyone. The rich might have the latest versions, but make no mistake even the homeless will be connected.

So, when one contemplates this version of the future it begs for some advance planning. How do those charged with safety and security operate in this new environment? What skills need to be included or developed in their personnel? What technology needs inventing?

Over the past year or so I’ve been working with a large multinational alliance that’s contemplating these questions and many more. Recently we were in the UK for a week working on the topic and once again some issues really stuck in my head. Like tech. Specifically how technology intended for good might be re-purposed for nefarious endeavors.

In the picturesque English countryside, we discussed and debated how enemies of liberty, old and new, might use commonly available tools to further their agendas.

At one point, as if to remind us this wasn’t just an academic exercise, a vintage Spitfire flew over the campus and I recalled we stood on ground that not too long ago suffered bombings and rocket attacks from an aggressive foe using the best technology of that day. And they almost won.

When bad actors exist you can bet they’ll take advantage of technology. That’s the real lesson. A big difference between the 1940’s and today is the rapid, and wide spread availability of technology. It’s not just nation-states battling it out and pushing technological envelopes. The battlefield today is asymmetric, unconventional and more crowded than ever. No longer are expensive and unwieldy bombers and tanks required to wreak havoc. Drones purchased on Amazon, Google maps and some second hand weapons are really all a burgeoning enemy force needs to inflict serious damage.

I’m not talking about active shooters or improvised explosive devices either (although those are certainly still an effective part of the terrorist repertoire), but sophisticated, organized and effective urban warfare. 

Unbound by policy and law the only obstacle is their own imagination and technical ability. Which, by the way, is already the case. ISIS uses open source maps and common apps to improve targeting. They’ve fashioned remote controlled sniper rifles. They even have an effective forward observer tactic using consumer grade communications and GPS apps. Things that we use every day to improve the quality of life are just as effective at destroying a way of life. As tech advances, what are the dark side ramifications? Things that are difficult, if not impossible, to control? Like contagious diseases traveling on jet planes, every leap forward has a downside. You can travel anywhere on the globe in a day, and you can also bring Ebola out of the bush and unwittingly unleash it in an urban setting on the other side of the world.

The trick is being able to identify the potential downsides and plan for them.  That requires looking beyond the pizza drone utopia and seeing the world as it is in order to make an educated guess at what it might be. The group I’m working with reconvenes next month in Rome for two more weeks of deep diving into the future. Fascinating and sometimes scary, the work of thinking ahead is critical. For a global alliance or for your retirement, advance planning requires challenging ourselves to look at how things are, how things will likely be, and how we need to evolve to tackle the challenges we see coming. On the best of days, we might see 10 of the 1000 challenges, but in thinking ahead and preparing we’ll be on better footing for whatever the future brings.

Who knows? Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the drone will bring me a pizza instead of a bomb. More likely though, it’ll bring both.

Just in Time Society

“Growing up my grandfather told me to keep my car ½ full all the time.”

Back in the day, when our parents and grandparents had to walk to school 5 miles in the snow (uphill both ways) people understood that sometimes you had to wait for things. Most stores were closed in the evening and on Sundays (I know, right??) and your Haagen-Dazs craving would just have to wait. If you ordered from a catalog, as in the paper kind that was about 2 inches thick and filled with toys (and clothes, bleh) you had to fill out a paper form, write a paper check and send that in via snail mail. About 12 years later a parcel would arrive and you’d get all excited because you’d long forgotten what you ordered. The point here is that things were slower. It’s the way it was. People understood and accepted it. And more importantly they planned work-arounds.111112_4758

Somewhere along the way the internet happened. Along with it came massive improvements in supply chain logistics. We became a 24/7 world where FedEx will get a package to any major (and a whole lot of minor) cities in 24 hours. If you need something you go to the store… whenever. Most are open late and many 24 hours. Now days there are people who get upset because a store closes for Christmas Day. We can browse Amazon whenever we want and get torqued if what we want isn’t Prime and will take longer than two days to arrive.

We are a just in time society. Immediate gratification supported by sophisticated inventory management systems and vast logistics system that keep products moving all the time based on predictions of what will be needed where and when it needs to arrive to keep from running out.

I’m not just talking about grocery stores here. Hospitals usually have about 3 days of stuff on hand. Pharmacies. Fuel stations time deliveries. Just about everything depends on just in time logistics.

On the surface it makes sense: storage costs, inventory costs, loss costs. So why not keep just what you need on hand? You can get more in a day or two at most.

Until you can’t.

Growing up my grandfather told me to keep my car ½ full all the time. They had a huge garden and canned or froze everything. They raised their own chickens, beef, and pork for a time as well. I took it for granted that there would always be plenty. He didn’t. He knew. He remembered the Great Depression and having to migrate from the dust bowl of Oklahoma.  He remembered WWII and the rations (both at home and nasty little cans of food while he was in Europe).

We’ve forgotten. And that’s a mistake.

10227170096_cc31d00687_zSee, as good as our logistics system is, it’s incredibly fragile. If everybody is depending on a truck of goodies showing up every 24-48 hours and nobody keeps inventory anymore what happens when it takes a week or a month for trucks to show up? What happens when refineries go off line for whatever the reason? We run out of things. So you don’t have ice cream, you’ll live. What if you run out of medicine? What if the hospital runs out? What if you’re out of fuel and can’t use your car?

You’re starting to get the picture now. How will you run your business? If you can’t get supplies and employees or customers can’t get to you how long can you hold out? What’s your plan? Hope for a miracle isn’t really a strong action plan.

Disruptions happen all the time, they just usually don’t get noticed on a large scale. It’s not even a Sandy or Katrina level event most of the time. It’s strikes, refineries go off line or local/regional emergencies that have a ripple effect across the nation. Every winter, storms delay trucks and planes crisscrossing the nation.

Fuel is of particular interest because everything-and I do mean everything– is dependent on fuel. If you do an inter-dependency analysis of lifelines (water, power, telecom, logistics, etc) there is one commonality at the foundation: fuel. Now, that takes many forms such as natural gas, gasoline, diesel fuel, bunker oil, coal and even nuclear material. By far and away the most common, and in most demand, are gas and diesel. No fuel, no movement, no stuff. Think it’s a rare occurrence? Try again. Most of the time we get lucky and the industry changes distribution patterns to compensate. Prices rise. People self-conserve. It’s a really, really thin margin that doesn’t take much to collapse.

france map of fuel stations

France recently suffered fuel shortages due to strikes that reduced refinery output. In the 70’s the US weathered an oil embargo that resulted in gas rationing.  In both Katrina and Sandy, fuel ran short – as it does in almost every major weather event.

The lesson here is that logistics is a fragile thing and we’re so very dependent on everything going right all the time. It’s all good until it’s not.

Then what? How much gas is in your car right now?

240 Years & We’re More Dependent Than Ever

“Where would we be if suddenly all the tech that drives most of the conveniences we enjoy suddenly stopped working?”

FB_IMG_1467739729287I’m headed to the UK for a couple of weeks of strategic planning and catching up with colleagues in the newly Brexited environment. At the same time, it’s just after our own Brexit day here in America, so we spent the weekend doing what we always do on Independence Day: watching some Revolution themed movies. It’s our thing.

It occurred to me as we marathoned the HBO miniseries John Adams that these people made huge sacrifices just to conduct business. Think about it: a business trip, even domestic, could take weeks, months, or even years. I thought I’ve got a haul with 10 days or so abroad. It took them four to six weeks to get to Europe. In many respects people were lucky to survive the trip…and comfort? From what I’ve seen of old ships, cramped, smelly and awful food sort of begin to scratch the surface. Even the worst airlines don’t serve worm infested hard tack. Yet. Cramped and smelly they’ve got covered though.

So here we are 240 years later standing on the sacrifices of people who not only founded America, but the thousands of other explorers, missionaries, business men and pioneers who literally risked everything to get us to where we are now. And I’m worried about whether my big butt will be comfortable for 11 hours in a vehicle that will transport me across North America and the Atlantic Ocean (via the Arctic, by the way) in what took a prairie schooner the same time to maybe make 15-20 miles in the 1800s. Add to that some of the other modern conveniences we take for granted, like say anesthesia (because can you fathom how much dentistry sucked?) and instant communications, and our ancestors would be both amazed at our accomplishments and dismayed about how inept we are as humans. Talk about your first world problems. IMG_3781

Where would we be if suddenly all the tech that drives most of the conveniences we enjoy suddenly stopped working? When’s the last time you had to carry water? I carried a large pot of water outside to water a plant yesterday and I can testify that it sucks. I cannot imagine carrying all the water one needs to run a house from a shared well or some contaminated source every day. Maybe even carrying it for a mile or more. Ok…I can and it makes my shoulders hurt to think about it.

How about communications? What if my biggest concern wasn’t the fact that Google Messenger isn’t working on WiFi like it’s supposed to and I’ll have to use a different messaging app to keep in touch with friends, family and clients while I’m abroad? Because you know I’m not paying AT&T’s crazy international rates (I use this little gadget instead). What if it took months to get a letter to home, if it got there at all? And the reply took just as long? No way that’s ok. Most of us get stressed being disconnected for the 11 hour flight, so now they’re making possible to stay connected there too.

8083014909_0f970c3045_zIt’s a little crazy don’t you think?  How dependent we are on machines and electronics for us to function, move, or even think.

There’s plenty of reasons we could suddenly be without part or all of the modern stuff we’re dependent on and take for granted. In fact, there’s plenty of places in the world today that lack some or all of the first world amenities. All over Africa people carry water. Electricity is not a guarantee in much of the world. As widespread as digital communications network service levels vary from great to nothing depending on where you are. Even in San Francisco the service varies from great to nothing depending on where you stand, but that’s another topic.

So what would you do if all things tech or electricity dependent came to a grinding halt? What if there was a solar flare or an EMP that crashed it all? Too far you say? Not possible? Well, I’d say it is possible, but I’ll play along. How about a storm or suicidal squirrel that takes out a local or regional substation? A cyber attack? What then?

All I’m saying is think about it and maybe have some ink, paper and homing pigeons handy. Just in case. When your battery dies and that handheld digital brain goes dark, knowing how to read a map and having key information on paper will make your life a lot easier.

More Prepared Than You Think

“My point here is that it’s really not that hard, so what’s the hold up? Be creative.”

When someone talks about disaster preparedness most people automatically go to thoughts of Katrina, Sandy, huge fires or earthquakes. At that point the whole topic is shut down in the vast majority of brains. It’s too big. It’s too hard to think about. It’s probably never going to happen to me, and if it does I’ll be dead anyway…and so it goes. Preparedness gets put on the to do list somewhere between “try dentistry without Novocain” and “hand paint blades of grass.” get a kit

What if I said preparedness isn’t just for catastrophes? That getting a few things figured out will prove invaluable when the everyday emergencies happen. What’s an everyday emergency you ask? Power outage, minor fire, minor flooding, gas leak, transit strike, road closure…if you think about it we’re beset with various inconveniences and urgent things all the time. They’re everyday emergencies.

Here’s the thing:  you already know how to deal with most or all of the things that happen in everyday life.  You are more prepared than you think. Seriously. If you’re stuck at work, do you have a backup plan to pick up the kids? If you had to camp out somewhere because your house was say, being tented for pests would you have an idea where to go? If you forgot to hit the store on the way home from work, do you have some food in your house? Most people say yes to these questions or any number of similar ones.

Congratulations, you’re 75% of the way to being prepared. For just about anything. Want to bridge the gap? Get to 100%? Of course you do. You’re an achiever.

It starts with writing a few things down and making sure your family all knows things like where to assemble if the house is inaccessible and who to call if you can’t get a hold of one another. Then start taking stock of what you have around. Canned food you don’t mind eating cold? Good. How about a manual can opener? Hard to feast on cold Spaghetti O’s without one of those.


The single most important thing to keep around is water. We humans (and pets) don’t really do well without it. There’s a few ways to do it. You can buy some jugs and fill them yourself or buy water to keep around, how is less important than doing it.  We live in northern California where water can be both scarce and expensive so my wife came up with a two-fer solution years ago. While we’re waiting for the water to get hot we catch the water in jugs. Usually juice or milk jugs we’ve cleaned out and re-purposed (so I guess it’s a three-fer: recycle). We then use the water for plants or cleaning up. Why drag the hose to rinse something off the deck when I can grab a jug? The result is we use less water, which is expensive, and always have several gallons on hand should we need it (and those jugs aren’t in a landfill!!). Because it’s rotated constantly I don’t worry too much about potability, but then again I was raised drinking from a garden hose – so use your own judgement.

My point here is that it’s really not that hard, so what’s the hold up? Be creative. Read some stuff about it here, or here. Then, do what works for you. Don’t worry about buying out REI or building a compound. Keep it simple and use some common sense. The goal is to tailor your preparedness to your needs. Do you live in an area prone to severe storms and power outages? You might want a generator. On the other hand if power outages are rare but you live in the urban/wildland interface where fire is a constant threat a go-bag is absolutely essential.

In our case the biggest risk is an earthquake, power outages aren’t all that common and flooding is all around us, but not directly affecting us. In 1989So our strategy is focused on water, a well stocked pantry, extra propane for the BBQ and plenty of batteries (and a hand crank radio/phone charger). I happen to enjoy camping so I’ve got plenty of gear and I’m generally pretty handy so I’ve got knowledge and tools to make repairs or fashion solutions to whatever pops up. In all we had to purchase very few things specifically for disaster preparedness.

How often does it come in handy? Well, last night we had a rare power outage. Pulled out some battery LED lights and settled in to do some reading while sitting out on the deck. Not a bad evening at all. Same thing happened a few years ago while travelling. The hotel was in a blackout. Another small (disposable!) LED emergency light and a couple of light sticks made for a comfortable evening in the room for my wife and I.

It’s just not that hard…and a few minutes of work now will save a ton of stress later.

“A stitch in time saves nine.” -Ben Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanac

Union Foxtrot International – People Centric, Resilience Focused

Definition of RESILIENCE

1 the capability of a strained body to recover its size and shape after deformation caused especially by compressive stress

2 an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change

With all the buzz about resilience it’s pretty easy to get lost in the details. What does it mean to be a resilient organization? What plans do you need, how much stuff do you need to buy…and what software products do you need? Even the definition is subject to debate. Why resilience instead of preparedness? Does it apply to systems, infrastructure or people?

It gets exhausting.

PH Final-0680Years ago I put my stake in the ground and started going with resilience as opposed to preparedness because it acknowledges that bad things happen. Disasters, violence, industrial accidents…. you name it the world we live just isn’t a very safe place. You can prepare all you want, but no amount of duct tape or MREs are going to help an organization recover and forge ahead if the people and the systems aren’t resilient.

There are probably thousands of pages written on this topic. I’ve read some, even been interviewed by a few people regarding my thoughts on the topic. The truth is I’m a huge fan of keeping it simple and have zero qualms telling you I’m no expert on resiliency. I know people that can get into the weeds on this (some can go right past the weed and straight to the roots), but the academic aspect of it isn’t my focus – the functional application of this concept of resiliency is. My thoughts are based on my observations and studies over the past 28 or so years that I’ve spent neck deep the emergency business. First as a paramedic and then as a government executive running an emergency management organization. In that time, I’ve dealt with the whole spectrum of humanity. I have had the chance to march in the humanity parade alongside rich and poor, the homeless and the elite. I’ve learned it truly is just they say…we all bleed red, we all laugh, cry and use the restroom. Along the path I’ve been honored to walk alongside amazing individuals; sometimes celebrating with them, sometimes propping them up, and sometimes just sitting down and crying with them. 111112_4567

People. That’s the key. Humans have a natural resilience to them. A survival instinct so primal it rivals a bear protecting her cubs. Even in today’s digital world, where it’s a fair argument that we’re becoming too dependent on tech to do anything, people will still come together and figure it out when the chips are down. No argument that some are weaker and some are stronger, that’s also nature. Inside the vast majority of us is that little primal flame of survival. That’s where resilience starts. Don’t believe me? Scan the news for survival stories. People helping each other. Strangers risking it all for someone else. It happens every day. You might need to dig, because editors prefer those other stories where the strong take advantage of the weak, but they’re there. It might not be leading for lack of bleeding but they’ll put the story below the fold in the “human interest” category.

With a little preparation and some practice people can deliberately become more resilient. The ancients knew this to be true, just as we do today. For a great read on it pick up a copy of Resilient by Eric Greitens. He talks about what it means to be resilient as a human, and does a far better job than I can in a blog post.

Captain Sully didn’t just become that cool voice telling air traffic control that he was landing in the Hudson. He trained for it. He rehearsed that moment a thousand times in his head (OK, maybe not with birds…but you get the point). Part of his job was to be that guy in a pinch. He nailed it. And so can you.

From a practical perspective I’ve been helping organizations and people find their footing and build resilience for years. I like to think it’s what I did as a leader, as mentor and as a government executive. So it was easy to know what the focus would be when we started this little consultancy. People are at the core of every success and failure in an emergency. Whether it’s a power outage or a catastrophic earthquake, how well prepared the people are to deal with a high stress, constantly evolving situation goes a long way towards determining the outcome. PH Final-0675

Union Foxtrot International offers a variety of services to help the individual, organization, government or business become better prepared for the everyday, and not so every day, emergencies that are part of life. No matter if we’re helping you get your home in order, write a business continuity plan or teaching elected officials crisis leadership our focus is always on the people. The tools will vary from situation to situation, the tech will change, and nothing will unfold as planned. A resilient person will have the inner means to adapt what is and MacGyver the best solution available (for those who don’t know MacGyver click here – I’m old and I make no apologies).

We can help build your individual and organizational resilience through strategy development, planning, and practice. That’s what we do. Take a look around the site for more details on the service lines. We’ll be adding to and updating as we grow and learn, building our own organizational resilience as we go, just like you do.

Thanks for reading and I hope you’ll keep checking in. The plan is a weekly post and the topics will range to anything related to preparedness, continuity, resilience, and probably a war story or two. The goal is to keep it readable and entertaining, or at least thought provoking.

So here’s a thought to get you going: you’re more prepared than you think. More on that to come. Have a great day everyone, and thanks for stopping by.

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“You are not born with a fixed amount of resilience. It’s a muscle, you can build it up and then draw on it when you need it.” -Sheryl Sandberg